TORONTO — If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to sit down in a room and listen to Mark Shapiro talk about the state of the Toronto Blue Jays for an hour, it’s almost precisely what you’d imagine.
On Thursday, the Blue Jays CEO sat in a boardroom with approximately 20 journalists and tried to reframe the discourse around his club, which has turned decidedly sour after a trade deadline that didn’t impress many in the industry.
The Blue Jays president began with an opening statement of sorts that addressed the heart of this issue.
“Obviously I’m cognizant and well aware of the recent kind of tenor and tone and frustration and all those things,” he said. “For me, I wanted to give you some thoughts on where I’ve been mentally over the last couple of weeks, especially the last 7-10 days. And that’s largely positive, largely optimistic and largely excited about the way things are going.”
Shapiro proceeded to rave about the Blue Jays’ core of position players, and how much more competitive the team has been over the last month-and-a-half or so. That included reading off an improved run differential and “close-and-late” statistics from June 19 on, an arbitrary 44-game stretch in which his team went 21-23. After he was done reading statistics it was on to reading names — in this case a list of young pitchers in the Blue Jays organization, outlining the waves they’d come in.
From there, the executive got dangerously close to making some bolder proclamations, but left plenty of room to avoid making any promises or predictions about the Blue Jays taking the next step to competitiveness.
Here are a couple of examples:
"We feel a sense of urgency. We're doing everything humanly possible to push that envelope. You have to understand with human beings there's no finite date we can give. But we're not going to set a limit as to how soon that can happen."
"We will certainly have to and will supplement that internal group of players and look to do it as soon this offseason — but it's not a great offseason for free agent talent. But there are some people out there."
Shapiro has taken a lot of flak for the way he interfaces with the public, but he’s undoubtedly a master of managing expectations. Nothing he’s saying there is wrong, but his steadfast refusal to offer a concrete target for his team’s playoff contention is exactly the sort of thing that creates the frustration his mini-State of the Union was meant to quell.
No one wants to be in the position of making promises they can’t keep, but at the same time it’s not too hard to say something like, “There are so many variables at play when you’re looking at the future, but based on the quality of our young players and our payroll flexibility we feel like we’re on track to be in the hunt by 2021.” Perhaps saying that would add some pressure, but if the Blue Jays aren’t competitive by 2021 it would be an indictment on this front office’s ability to build a team — and they’d be feeling the pressure anyway.
In the 50 minutes or so that followed, Shapiro addressed questions about everything from the team’s pitching to the evolution of pro scouting and even gave a brief slideshow presentation on the progress of the Blue Jays’ spring training facility in Dunedin.
The answers, by and large, were exceedingly Shapiro-esque, not-inaccurate, but not necessarily forthcoming, or encouraging for fans looking for something to be optimistic about.
Here are a few of the highlights:
On payroll going forward:
The only directive from ownership is to run a business that doesn’t lose money and obviously payroll is going to reflect that. Revenues are down because attendance is down. Part of the plan from Day 1 and part of the understanding is that there will be a time where we need to outspend and outpace revenue with spending on players.
On Toronto as an MLB market:
It’s clearly one of the greatest markets in Major League Baseball, but based on revenues it’s probably in that 8-10 range. Somewhere in there. Clearly we’re in one of the more advantageous positions in the game.
On the external perception from fans:
Winning will fix everything without a doubt. There’s no question in my mind. That’s ultimately the only thing that will satisfy people.
On spending more on free agents while Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette are still inexpensive:
To do that would probably not be prudent, it probably wouldn’t be smart. You ultimately want to reward that and keep those guys in place and provide long-term contracts to whoever you identify as your core players.
On how the club sees 2020:
I’d like to take the next eight weeks before we start to turn the page to next year for now. But I would hope we continue the progression on that young core and compete. I recognized we’ve got a lot of development work and transition to do on the pitching side.
On “buying” a major league team through free agency:
It doesn’t work. New York has the best young talent in Major League Baseball. That’s why they’re good.
On how Shapiro feels about fans’ frustration:
It bothers me to lose, terribly. As far as anything else you just turn that towards how much more can we do, how much harder can we work, how much more urgency can we have to get back to a winning team. That’s where my energy’s focused. Controlling what I can control. I can’t control that in any way except for putting my energy towards us winning as fast as possible. That I can control. Anything else, I can’t.
Looking through that, you’re not going to find anything that’s dishonest or foolish. Contrary to what some people think of Shapiro, they are not the words of someone who has no idea what he’s doing. His plan of building around this position player core and supplementing in free agency where needed and stockpiling pitchers to guard against injury and attrition is fundamentally sound — even if some of the Blue Jays’ individual moves of late have been dubious.
However, nothing the Blue Jays CEO said on Thursday was new. There were more declarations of overall optimism while avoiding specific timelines for contention, more managing expectations about free agent spending, and more gushing about the Dunedin facility. Basically, Shapiro played the hits.
The thing about playing the hits is that it works if you’re the Foo Fighters, but if you’re Nickelback you might get pelted by rocks. Shapiro is widely reviled by many Blue Jays fans, and he’s not going to dig himself out of that hole by saying exactly the same sort of things that got him there in the first place.
Holding court with the media as an attempt to improve the tone of discourse around the team isn’t a bad idea, in theory. In practice, if the Blue Jays front office wants to change the narrative something actually needs to change.
Shapiro is right that putting a winning product on the field is the best way to do that. Finding a more fan-friendly way to communicate his vision looks like a far longer shot at this point.
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